The Forten Sisters

The Forten Women of Philadelphia

The Fortens were one of the most prominent black families in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. Wealthy sailmaker James Forten and his wife Charlotte Vandine Forten headed the family; their daughters were: Margaretta, Harriet, and Sarah. The Fortens were active abolitionists who took part in founding and financing at least six abolitionist organizations. The Forten sisters were educated in private schools and by private tutors.

Image: Sisters by Keith Mallett

Margaretta Forten (1806-1875)

Margaretta was an African American abolitionist and suffragist. She worked as a teacher for at least thirty years. During the 1840s she taught at a school run by Sarah Mapps Douglass; in 1850 she opened her own school. Margaretta never married and lived with her parents as an adult. In time, she took on the responsibility of running of her parents’ home on Lombard Street in Philadelphia, caring for her elderly mother and bachelor brothers Thomas and William.

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Slaves in the White House I

Slaves and Presidents at the White House

Construction on the President’s House began in 1792 in Washington, DC, a new capital situated in a sparsely settled region far from a major population center. Eleven U.S. presidents were slaveholders. Seven of those owned slaves while living at the White House: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor.

Image: Black cook working in the White House kitchen
Damp and moldy, the ground floor was a difficult place for the White House staff to work and live.
Photograph by Frances Benjamin

Slave Quarters at the White House
Not only did enslaved men and women work in the White House, but they also lived there; most often in rooms in the basement. Open at ground level on the south, the basement had windows on the north facing an area that was entirely hidden from view except from the kitchen. This vaulted corridor once accessed a forty-foot kitchen with large fireplaces at each end, a family kitchen, an oval servants hall, the steward’s quarters, and the servants’ bedrooms.

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Black Women Writers of the 19th Century

African-American Women Authors in Antebellum America

Image: Middle-class black women who loved to read did not have many role models.
Credit: Jeffrey Green

Prior to the Civil War, the majority of African-Americans living in the United States were held in bondage. Although law forbade them, many found a way to learn to read and write. More African-Americans than we could have imagined published poetry, biographies, novels and short stories.

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Mary Peake

Teacher of Runaway Slaves at Fortress Monroe

Mary Peake was a teacher, best known for starting a school for the children of former slaves in the summer of 1861, under the shade of a tree that would become known as the Emancipation Oak in present-day Hampton, Virginia. This makeshift outdoor classroom provided the foundation of what would become Hampton University.

Image: Mary Peake

Early Years
In 1823, Mary Smith Kelsey was born free in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father was an Englishman “of rank and culture” and her mother was a free woman of color, described as light-skinned. When Mary was six, her mother sent her to the town of Alexandria (then part of the District of Columbia) to attend school while living with her aunt Mary Paine.

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Women Slaves in Colonial Virginia

Women Slaves in the Colony of Virginia

Slavery is a civil relationship in which one person has absolute power over the fortune, life and liberty of another. Chattel slavery further defines that relationship with the added dimension of ownership as personal property (chattel), in which the chattel can be bought and sold as if they were commodities. Chattel slavery was legal in the American colonies from the mid-17th century to the end of the Civil War in 1865.

A slave is a human being who is forced to obey the commands of others, and to work for nothing. A chattel slave is an enslaved person who is owned forever and whose children and children’s children are automatically enslaved as well. A chattel slave has no rights, and is no longer viewed as a human being, but as an object used to accomplish a task, like any other tool.

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Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist who escaped from slavery in New York in 1826. She began as an itinerant preacher and became a nationally known advocate for equality and justice, sponsoring a variety of social reforms, including women’s property rights, universal suffrage and prison reform.

She was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 on the estate of Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh in Swartekill, a Dutch settlement in upstate New York. She was one of 13 children born to Elizabeth and James Baumfree, who were slaves on the Hardenbergh plantation. Both the Baumfrees and the Hardenberghs spoke Dutch in their daily lives. After the colonel’s death, ownership of the Baumfrees passed to his son Charles.

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Maria Stewart

First African American Woman to Lecture in Public

Maria Stewart was an essayist, lecturer, abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was the earliest known American woman to lecture in public on political issues. Stewart is known for four powerful speeches she delivered in Boston in the early 1830s – a time when no woman, black or white, dared to address an audience from a public platform.

Childhood and Early Years
She was born free as Maria Miller in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut. All that is known about her parents is their surname, Miller. At the age of five, she lost both her parents and was forced to become a servant in the household of a white clergyman. She lived with this family for ten years.

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Rebecca Jackson

Founder of a Black Shaker Community

Little is known of the early life of Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871), a free black woman who became an elder in the Shaker religion, which was founded by Mother Ann Lee just before the Revolutionary War. At age 35 Jackson underwent a religious conversion during a thunderstorm, after which she became an itinerant preacher and established a black Shaker community in Philadelphia in 1859. There are no known images of Rebecca Cox Jackson.

Image: African American Church in Philadelphia by Pavel Petrovich Svinin, 1815

Rebecca Cox was born on February 15, 1795 to a free family in Hornstown, Pennsylvania and lived until the age of three or four with her grandmother, who died when Rebecca was seven. From the time she was ten, she was responsible for the care of two younger siblings. Rebecca’s mother died when she was thirteen, and she was taken in by her brother Joseph Cox, a thirty-one-year old African Methodist Episcopal minister, a widower and father of six children.

In 1830, she married Samuel S. Jackson, who also lived in the Cox house, and they continued living with her brother and his children. They had no children. In addition to managing her brother’s home, Rebecca worked as a seamstress, one of the most common occupations for black women during that period, even after getting married.

In July 1830, at age 35, Rebecca experienced a religious awakening during a severe thunderstorm. For years, her fear of storms had been so great that, “In time of thunder and lightning I would have to go to bed because it made me so sick.” On this day, she was unable to contain her fear, convinced that she would die during the storm. In her moment of greatest despair, as she prayed for either death or redemption, she suddenly felt as though “the cloud burst,” and the lightning that had been “the messenger of death, was now the messenger of peace, joy and consolation.”

After this revelation, Rebecca began to experience visions in which she discovered the presence of a divine inner voice that instructed to use her spiritual gifts. She claimed that in these dreams she could heal the sick, make the sinful holy, speak with angels and even fly. She left her husband’s bed to live a life of “Christian perfection.” Her inner voice instructed her “to travel some and speak to the people.”

At first, Rebecca recounted her visionary experiences and held prayer meetings in people’s homes. She soon developed a large following – inspiring both blacks and whites, mostly women – through neighborhood “Covenant Meetings.” She was harshly criticized for “aleading the men” and for her refusal to formally join any church, which several Methodist ministers saw as “chopping up our churches.”

Morris Brown, who succeeded Richard Allen as Bishop of the AME Church, came to a meeting led by Rebecca with the intention of stopping her; but after listening to her, he declared, “If ever the Holy Ghost was in any place, it was in that meeting. Let her alone now.”

Yet Rebecca was still frustrated by her inability to read and write. Her brother had promised to teach her, but had not been able to do so, being tired every night. She resolved to “not think hard of my brother, … [who] had always been kind and like a father to me.” She continued to rely on him to read and write for her. Until she realized he had made substantial changes in letters she had dictated.

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Jane Johnson

Slave Freed by Abolitionists in Philadelphia

Jane Johnson (1820-1872) was a slave whose escape to freedom was the focus of precedent-setting legal cases in 19th century Philadelphia. Safeguarded by Philadelphia abolitionists after her escape in 1855, Johnson later settled in Boston. There she married, and sheltered other fugitives slaves. Her son Isaiah served in the American Civil War with the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops.

Jane Johnson is believed to have been born into slavery as Jane Williams in or near Washington, DC, the daughter of John and Jane Williams; the exact year of her birth is unknown. Virtually nothing is known of her early life, which she presumably spent on Virginia plantations; it is believed that she lived for part of that time in Caroline County and had several owners.

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Sally Hemings

Thomas Jefferson’s Slave and Mistress

Sally Hemings was the daughter of Elizabeth Hemings and, allegedly, John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law – Elizabeth Hemings and her children did live at John Wayles’ plantation during his lifetime. In 18th-century Virginia, children born to slave mothers inherited their legal status, therefore Elizabeth and Sally Hemings and all their children, were legally slaves, even when the fathers were their white masters.

If Sally Hemings’ father was John Wayles, she would have been the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. After Wayles died in 1773, Martha inherited the Hemings family; when Martha died in 1782, she left the Hemings family to Thomas Jefferson.

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